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Gun-maker Remington can be sued over how it marketed the rifle used to kill 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, a divided Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Gun control advocates touted the ruling as providing a possible roadmap for victims of other mass shootings to circumvent a long-criticized federal law that shields gun manufacturers from liability in most cases when their products are used in crimes. Gun rights supporters bashed the decision as judicial activism and overreach.
In a 4-3 decision, justices reinstated a wrongful death lawsuit against Remington and overturned the ruling of a lower court judge, who said the entire lawsuit was prohibited by the 2005 federal law. The majority said that while most of the lawsuit's claims were barred by the federal law, Remington could still be sued for alleged wrongful marketing under Connecticut law.
"The regulation of advertising that threatens the public's health, safety, and morals has long been considered a core exercise of the states' police powers," Justice Richard Palmer wrote for the majority, adding he didn't believe Congress envisioned complete immunity for gun-makers.
Several lawsuits over mass shootings in other states have been rejected because of the federal law.
The plaintiffs in Connecticut include a survivor and relatives of nine people killed in the massacre. They argue the Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle used by Newtown shooter Adam Lanza is too dangerous for the public and Remington glorified the weapon in marketing it to young people, including those with mental illness.
Remington, based in Madison, North Carolina, has denied wrongdoing and previously insisted it can't be sued because of the 2005 law, called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. A Remington spokesman said Thursday the company had no comment on the court ruling.
"We have no timeline for any comments to be made on the subject," spokesman Eric Suarez wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
James Vogts, a lawyer for Remington, has cited the 2005 federal law and previously said the Bushmaster rifle is a legal firearm used by millions of people for hunting, self-defense and target shooting.
Lanza, 20, shot his way into the locked school in Newtown on Dec. 14, 2012, and killed 20 first-graders and six educators with a Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle, similar to an AR-15. He shot his mother to death in their Newtown home beforehand, and killed himself as police arrived at the school.
Connecticut's child advocate said Lanza's severe and deteriorating mental health problems, his preoccupation with violence and access to his mother's legal weapons "proved a recipe for mass murder."
Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son Dylan died in the shooting, said Thursday that a main goal of the lawsuit is to stop Remington and other gun makers from gearing their advertising toward troubled young men.
"We have always said our case is about reckless sales and marketing to disturbed youth," Hockley said. "We wanted our day in court. This is a step forward to ensure that manufacturers like Remington are not allowed to keep targeting people who are at risk."
A gun industry group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which happens to be based in Newtown, said the state Supreme Court ruling was an "overly broad interpretation" of an exception to the 2005 federal law.
"The majority's decision today is at odds with all other state and federal appellate courts that have interpreted the scope of the exception," the group said in a statement, adding it "respectfully disagrees with and is disappointed by the court's majority decision."
Connecticut Chief Justice Richard Robinson focused much of the dissenting opinion on the intent of Congress to limit gun-makers' liability.
"Because the distastefulness of a federal law does not diminish its preemptive effect, I would affirm the judgment of the trial court striking the plaintiff's complaint in its entirety," Robinson wrote.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, called the ruling a victory for gun violence victims that gives moment to an effort by him and other federal legislators to repeal the 2005 law.
"It's a wow moment in American legal history," he said. "It will change the legal landscape for this industry, potentially all across the country."
Blumenthal said the ruling reminded him of early court victories against tobacco companies that led them to disclose damaging internal documents and later agree to billions of dollars in legal settlements over sickened smokers.
Joshua Koskoff, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, has said the Bushmaster rifle and other AR-15-style rifles were designed as military killing machines and should never have been sold to the public. He accuses Remington of targeting younger, at-risk males through "militaristic marketing and astute product placement in violent first-person shooter games."
"The families' goal has always been to shed light on Remington's calculated and profit-driven strategy to expand the AR-15 market and court high-risk users, all at the expense of Americans' safety," Koskoff said Thursday. "Today's decision is a critical step toward achieving that goal."
The lawsuit seeks undisclosed damages.
Military-style rifles have been used in many other mass shootings, including in Las Vegas in October 2017 when 58 people were killed and hundreds more injured.
The case was watched by gun rights supporters and gun control advocates across the country as one that could affect other cases accusing gun-makers of being responsible for mass shootings. Several groups, ranging from the NRA to emergency room doctors, submitted briefs to the court.
The 2005 federal law has been cited by other courts that rejected lawsuits against gun makers and dealers in other high-profile shooting attacks, including the 2012 Colorado movie theater shooting and the Washington, D.C., sniper shootings in 2002.
Robert J. Spitzer, chairman of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland and an expert on guns and the Second Amendment, said the Connecticut ruling runs counter to the 2005 federal law. Even though the court allowed the case to proceed, he said, there still be a very high bar for successfully suing Remington.
"The likelihood they'll succeed is small," he said.
Still, allowing the lawsuit to move forward means that there will be an opportunity for discovery that would unearth company documents that could be embarrassing for Remington. Since gunmakers have in recent history been shielded from litigation, company officials may have felt emboldened to openly discuss tactics, marketing strategies and other revealing details about business dealings.
Remington filed for bankruptcy reorganization last year amid years of slumping sales and legal and financial pressure over the Sandy Hook school massacre.